World Cup preview: Where have you gone Landon Donovan?

Chris and Justin debate the controversial exclusion of the U.S. soccer legend

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From the June 12, 2014 edition

On May 22, manager Jurgen Klinsmann polarized U.S. Soccer fans by leaving Landon Donovan, widely considered the greatest player in U.S. history, off the 2014 World Cup roster. Below, Chris DeVille and Justin McIntosh debate the decision — DeVille in favor of Donovan, McIntosh in favor of Klinsmann.

Chris: Maybe Landon Donovan has lost a step at age 32, maybe he's not on the same wavelength as Jurgen Klinsmann, and maybe his commitment to his soccer career is less than inspiring. Even with all those factors stacked up against Donovan, leaving him off the plane to Brazil is insane. Let's take a quick look at his track record in the World Cup: He's scored five goals in 12 matches across three tournaments — six goals if you count the own-goal he helped create against Portugal in 2002. He is by far the most experienced and accomplished player in U.S. World Cup history. He was a part of the greatest U.S. World Cup team since 1950 as a youngster in 2002, experienced failure in 2006 and bounced back to lead the Americans out of group play again in 2010. So he's not soft from too much success nor rattled by too much disappointment. Donovan is a weird bird, and he's never been able to hack it in the top European leagues, but he steps up in the World Cup. And even if he never made it off the bench he'd be an invaluable resource to his teammates. I understand the rationale of giving younger players experience for 2018, but Klinsmann can't seriously be giving up on this tournament before it starts. Here in the present, can we honestly say the Americans are better off without Donovan?

Justin: I can’t argue against Donovan’s historic legacy as a U.S. international — it’s largely impeccable. But, yes, U.S. Soccer is better off without Landon in 2014. Shocking, I know. Look, it’s telling that the last international accomplishments listed in Landon’s bio on U.S. Soccer’s website are from 2012. Maybe the website isn’t up-to-date, or maybe it wiped out 2013 to support Klinsi's decision (the conspiracy theorist might be inclined in this direction). Who knows? Production-wise, 2013 was Donovan’s best in years, scoring 8 goals in 11 international matches. But three of those were in blowout friendlies, while a fourth was a tap-in gimme. And those numbers are only impressive when considering his previous form. In the three years prior, Landon scored a total of seven international goals, and his MLS statistics over that period show a significant decline in goals, assists and shots. Still, I think Donovan’s fate for Brazil wasn’t sealed until last year’s self-imposed sabbatical away from the game, where he cited burnout and hinted at retirement. Maybe it’s unfair to punish an athlete for being selfish with his psychical and mental well-being, but for a player who’s often been criticized for softness (hello, Landycakes!) and questionable leadership skills (calling out Beckham in a book), those intangibles look especially lacking when combined with his poor form. Can you blame Klinsi for wondering which Landon will show up to Brazil?

Chris: I can't blame Klinsmann for having doubts about Donovan; I am blaming him for not giving Donovan the benefit of the doubt. Your case that Donovan has been gradually declining is fair, but I'm not buying your argument that his 2013 stats are irrelevant. What we saw last year was a late-career resurgence, proof that his self-imposed sabbatical successfully recharged him for one last World Cup run. And after doing so much for U.S. Soccer, doesn't he deserve that? Don't we, the public in search of a great narrative, deserve that? Maybe you've seen the Facebook meme that explains how Donovan has more goals in 12 World Cup appearances than the combined output of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney over 31 matches. He ought to have a chance to build on that legacy, if only from off the bench, especially because other than Clint Dempsey, the rest of the forwards on the U.S. roster (Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski) are huge question marks. I agree with Grant Wahl, a reporter who spent most of the past two decades following U.S. Soccer for Sports Illustrated and Donovan's LA Galaxy for his book “The Beckham Experiment”: "There will come a time in this World Cup when the U.S. could use Donovan, and now that’s not a possibility (barring injury)." Of course, if this is all just a Svengali ploy to get Donovan fired up and then bring him in as a replacement when somebody on the roster inevitably goes down, all will be forgiven. Could such mind games be afoot?

Justin: If only. I’d love this to be, in a sense, U.S. Soccer’s Willis Reed moment, though if Dempsey comes down with a mysterious injury, it might turn into a Tonya Harding one. Klinsmann, publicly, at least, hasn’t left a lot of room for that type of swoop. He’s said Donovan could return if one of the 23 rostered players are injured, but with the caveat that the injury would have to occur to someone who plays basically the same position as Donovan. Still, these types of mind games are pure Klinsi. A fantastic recent New York Times profile suggested as much, with Jozy saying, “Jurgen knows how to unlock players. That’s what his stuff is all about — unlocking us.” Earlier in the piece, the reporter says Jurgen wants the “sort of committed, hungry, unentitled attitude that is the very opposite of what so many American pro athletes regard as their birthright.” Sounds like he might have been talking about Donovan, particularly when you read Klinsmann’s comments about Landon’s form in 2013 (spoiler: he, like me, wasn’t impressed). Landon himself has been quoted recently as suggesting he can’t perform consistently anymore. If cutting Landon serves as a wake-up call to the rest of the team, AND sets the tone for long-term growth, I’m OK with that. Klinsmann appears to be, as you noted, looking past this World Cup and toward 2018. That’s a fairly anti-American stance on sports, but maybe that’s exactly what’s needed. To quote the great Justin Bell: “Nostalgia is the destroyer of our present and our future.” All hail our German lockpicker.

AP photos